P-A-I-N is a 4-Letter Word

27 Oct

Our Program Director wrote his first blog this week entitled Train with Pain. He describes his experience with exercising despite injuries, the value of modifying positions, and developing creative alternatives to facilitate continued work toward one’s desired goals. It’s an excellent article- you can reference it here—but it got me thinking along the lines of the psychological components of pain and how that pain often serves to derail our best efforts just like an injury in the gym might.

I’m no stranger to pain during my workouts. In fact, I relish it. My license plate frame is emblazoned with “Pain is weakness leaving the body,” an old quote that I adopted as my motto in high school when I wanted to be GI Jane. I still want to be Demi Moore in that movie. I think most of you who know me would argue that I am that tough, mind-of-steel, hard core woman, but my personal journey toward mental toughness and the power of the psyche to guide you through life has far surpassed what I  believe GI Jane ever endured or intentionally sought to practice. And I will forever be in a state of learning.

That stuck place where many find themselves, wondering what to do next, questioning how they are going to climb out of the holes they  feel buried in or perhaps feeling like there is no way out all,  stems in part from the mindset they’ve adopted. I give lectures often on this concept. Mindset is a word used in so many different ways. “I need to change my mindset” or “my mindset needs an overhaul” are common sentiments of those recognizing how their ways of interpreting their circumstances limit the accessibility of more novel ideas and new methods of behaving.

“My work is fast and furious now and I really like it that way, but I am not thinking about the eating bit the way I should.  I have been thrown into this new role of constantly having 5 or 6 things in progress or waiting on another project to come together.  I still prepare for my meals but the exercise is not something I am faithful about particularly since I spend the whole day with much on my mind and when I get home I am downright tired.  It’s like Murphy’s law – everything that can go wrong, does.  I have not been visiting the fitness place lately.  I don’t plan to give up this new life style, but it has become harder for me to stay focused.”

A great example of how mindset can cloud motivation and the determination put toward pursuing goals, this email from a client recently made me pause to consider just how much each of us can differ in how we make sense of our worlds.

For the most part, I would argue that we are more alike than different when we look at how we think instinctually. The majority of our actions are often geared toward a desire for acceptance, connection, and meaning. I see it all the time—random events being linked to something for the purpose of it being explainable. The unknown is hard to accept. We desire control over our worlds. So humans have developed in a manner that has us thinking in a more conceptual versus literal way. Take this simple example: when looked at literally, pain is nothing more than a 4-letter word. P.A.I.N. But when you see the word “pain” or you say the word “pain,”  you almost automatically conjure images of what you’ve interpreted as painful experiences. You may see a face, you may be taken back to a moment during your last leg workout, you may be reliving the moment when you had to put your pet to sleep, or perhaps something occurred more recently and  you’re back at home getting ready for work when you burned yourself while making breakfast. You get my point. In essence, this conceptual style of relating to something is based on a  mindset formed through processing of information.

A more literal interpretation of events is rare—even if we consciously try to access it, it can be difficult to separate ourselves from what we’ve already formed interpretations around. Ever tried to solve an old problem a new way? Generating solutions to common issues using a novel approach often proves to be quite difficult. Scientists have addressed this in studies of brainstorming, showing that the technique, despite being popular, is really quite ineffective for what its purpose is. In a group of individuals with a singular goal, everyone is being guided by everyone else’s thoughts, thus limiting the creativity of each individual. The likelihood that one person will keep what could turn out to  be a novel idea to himself because of the risk of ridicule or perceiving that it won’t be accepted is very real. We’re dealing then not only with sociological and relational issues at that point, but cognitive ones as well.

In other research, savants have provided us with telling demonstrations of the more literal cognitive style. Savants typically fall within the autism spectrum, but their skill in accessing the unfiltered information that each of us would benefit from, shows up usually in childhood or after trauma to the brain. Using the pain example above, a savant who is exercising might not necessary say during a particularly intense workout, “I can’t do another rep—this pain is unbearable!” Instead you might hear something like, “There’s a burning sensation in my bicep” or “My heart rate appears to  be elevating.” Obviously there are advantages to seeing or interpreting the world this way- such objectivity can net you a great ability to persevere through what others might deem too uncomfortable. On the flip side, of course, looking at situations in a purely literal sense may not bode well for other circumstances in daily life that require empathy in relationships or even reading comprehension.  Take the savant child who when asked to explain the ending of a book read in class recited word-for-word the final page but exhibited no concept of the meaning conferred in the words.

Pros and cons exist on either end of the continuum. What is the meaning of all this then? That we benefit from having a flexible mindset….a growth mindset. Carol Dweck, a researcher at Stanford University, wrote a book about this concept, in fact. She describes the fixed versus growth mindset and the barrier to adopting a “this is just the way I am” stance. Essentially, one who views achievement in a more effort-based manner than on innate skills and talents will thrive. She has demonstrated it in studies of children and their successes. The growth mindset in essence, embodies a desire to learn, to embrace opportunities for accessing new thoughts and ways of being to facilitate the achievement of a goal, and for training with pain–enduring the discomfort because it will eventually result in success.

One more example to exemplify how accessing a more literal frame of mind can enhance your life comes from a client navigating the choppy waters of a potential divorce. In therapy we often talk about process versus content. Process means the underlying meaning, for example, if your friend said to you “I’m really hurt by what you did the other day,” and you replied “I can’t believe you didn’t bring this up before,” a process focus would mean you are looking at HOW you are interacting with each other. In this example, you missed the boat. You just ignored that she was expressing to you a feeling. But your friend did a nice job of not blaming you. The how. The content is the WHAT of the interaction. She’s hurt. You’re confused. You can look at the conceptual versus literal  mindsets in much the same way.

Recently having gone through the death of his father, this man shut down a bit, became withdrawn, angry, and was lashing out at his wife in a manner she’d never been accustomed to from him. He struck out in hurt, criticizing his father and her. Some time had passed and he had reconciled his pain with having lost his dad, but now was dealing with the reactions of his wife regarding how he had behaved toward her at the time. He explained to me that he had recently had an epiphany of sorts, interpreting his experience in a new way and that he had wanted to share it with his wife. At a time when they were contemplating separation and actively engaged in significant relational strife, it took much courage for him to approach her with this. When he did, being desirous of a discussion about the content of his words, she brushed over the topic with surface-level attention, saying “everyone deserves some mercy now and then.”  For me, the impact of this was profound. She was explaining what he should have done for his father, and it was exactly what she was refusing to offer him.

Two things are demonstrated in this example:

  1.  My client had not considered this in her reaction to him. He said, “I’ve never thought about it that way.” (This is my whole point—we often see things in the same way every time  based on our mindsets)
  2.  With this new interpretation, they would be able to move in a new direction. She might be able to see that the more important aspect of this interaction was that it happened…that  he went to her with it.

Training with pain then, essentially involves us learning how to see things in a fresh way. Often that may mean taking as objective an approach as is possible, often getting feedback from others who can point out our biases, and by assessing the values that we infuse into our interpretations. For my client who described having difficulty staying focused, I offered her the following insights under the auspices that it might prompt her to think of her circumstances in a disentangled manner. Perhaps my response will help you too:

“I know the game of adjusting to a new role, new responsibilities, a new pace, and a new structure. A lot of my time is not MY time, if I’m not in appointments, my door is open and people can walk in at any time. I may be mid-thought writing an article for our magazine, or an email to a client, developing an exercise program, and WHAM!, I’m taken somewhere completely different. I also always have pending tasks–long term projects that always have aspects of them left undone and short term projects that can get done in two minutes. Wasn’t easy at first, but it got easier and feels just “normal” now. Tired — I know this well too. Tired is not synonymous, however, with being useless or unable to plan. Now we delve into the characteristics inherent in motivation and commitment– perseverance, determination, autonomy (someone not forcing you to do this but doing it because YOU recognize its importance), values (you have defined for yourself why it’s important), and competence (understanding that the more you practice, the better you get at it).
Please remember too that the thought you had that “it has become harder to stay focused,” is temporary. It is not that it’s harder permanently. Your circumstances currently are such that you are having to juggle your priorities differently. If you imagine your responsibilities like a pie chart (divided into sections according to their level of importance), even day to day the pie chart can take on a new look, the chunks expanding or minimizing.

Those who you would look at and call determined or driven, don’t necessarily want to be doing what they’re doing all the time. I certainly don’t. Do I get tempted by food? Yep. Do I eat every time I’m tempted? Nope. Do I take the time to think through what I’m going to have for dinner even when I get home at 8pm and feel exhausted? Yep. Do I want to? Nope. Why do I make the effort? Because the consequences of not doing these things are far worse than the short term discomfort required to get through them.

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